We all pay dues!
By, Richard S. Hefner, Colonel, USAF (Retired)
C-141, B-52, C-5 Pilot
Anytime a pilot transfers from one major weapon system to another, he or she essentially starts over at the bottom of the ladder. The C-5 weapon system was no exception, especially for me since I was coming in from the Strategic Air Command.
One day shortly after my upgrade to Aircraft Commander, the chief pilot called me in. With a big smile on his face, he announced he wanted me to attend C-5 air refueling school so I could become “one of a limited number of designated air refueling qualified aircraft commanders.” Lucky me. Unfortunately I could not think of a way to wiggle out of going to refueling school without challenging his decision. Therefore, I announced back to him that I didn’t need to go to school. After all, I could already air refuel.
His smile vanished as he slowly rolled his eyes up and to the side and cocked his head to the right. Then … shaking his head slowly … he asked me why I thought I was capable of refueling the C-5 without going to school. I tried to carefully explain that every mission I flew in SAC involved air refueling and that if I could air refuel a B-52G, I could certainly air refuel the C-5. Never having heard this argument and knowing nothing about refueling a B-52, he chewed on my comment for awhile, then offered me an opportunity prove myself on a air refueling training mission the next day. I quickly accepted!
As it turned out, the next day’s refueling training mission was at night and heavyweight … the most difficult of air refueling parameters. That evening I started thinking about what my ego had got me into! All sorts of questions and concerns started popping into my head about the possible differences between the C-5 and the B-52s I had flown. Additionally, I knew nothing about MAC procedures versus SAC procedures. However, I did know the air refueling guidelines and requirements were established by the tanker community, therefore, those were essentially the same for everyone. All I really had to do was fly the C-5 into the contact position and hold it there.
The next evening we took off and I settled into one of the extra seats in the C-5’s spacious cockpit. My little test was secondary to the scheduled training, so I plugged my headset into the intercom and intently listened to every word that was said … hoping to pick up on some clues as to how to fly this beast into the contact position, which to my recollection was about 10 feet below and 20 feet behind the tail of the KC-135.
The “qualified” pilots accomplished the rendezvous and closed in on the tanker. Luckily for me, I did not have to do anything during the rendezvous. I only had to demonstrate that I could aerial refuel the C-5, thereby making it unnecessary to send me to school. As the pilot moved the Galaxy into the refueling envelope, I got out of my seat and moved behind the pilot’s seat so I could check out the view. Boy was a glad to see that it looked very familiar. Just maybe my boast was not ill-founded!
When the other pilots finished their practice, the instructor pilot (IP) backed the C-5 out to 1/2 mile behind the tanker and invited me to get into the pilot’s seat. Everyone on the plane knew that I was not “qualified” and I could sense the tension in the plane. Then the IP notified the tanker crew, “an unqualified air refueling pilot is going to be trying to make a contact.” Now I could feel the tension in both planes.
Never having flown the C-5 close to another plane, I was very unsure of the aerial dynamics involved and what the “feel” would be, especially with my plane loaded to the max. The first thing I noticed was the extra power needed to move the plane forward. Ugh … get this beast moving. Newton’s Law about something at rest wanting to stay at rest was making itself known. As I closed in on the tanker, the second thing I noticed was how difficult it was to slow the beast down … whoa! Yep, Newton’s Law again … something in motion wanting to stay in motion.
As I closed in on the tanker, I knew the overtake was too fast and even with the throttles at idle, we were not slowing down. I thought this was going to be a disaster. I was going to slide under the tanker, forcing a “breakaway”. I was blowing my opportunity. I felt like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and missing. I was destined to attend air refueling school. My ego had written a check my talent couldn’t cash (Top Gun movie).
Then the C-5 bow wave started taking effect. Inertia needs an outside force to change the movement of an object and to my surprise, the large bow wave of the heavy C-5 was exactly that outside force. My forward momentum slid to a halt in perfect pre-contact position just behind the tanker … almost like I knew what I was doing!
Making sure I stabilized in the pre-contact position, I immediately brought the throttles back in. Having air refueled the B-52G, which had no ailerons, I found the C-5 to have easy directional control in the pre-contact. Also the vertical movement was quite stable, but I could feel the wake of the tanker as it affected the plane’s tall T-tail. Forward and aft movements were going to be the biggest challenges.
Cleared by the boomer to move into the contact position, I inched the throttles forward. Hum … no movement. More throttles … a little movement. Getting the C-5 through that bow wave was going to take a hefty throttle movement. As soon as I got through the bow wave effect, I knew I would immediately need a quick throttle movement in the opposite direction to keep from shooting too far forward and under the tanker. There … through the bow wave … reduce power … stabilize!
Easier said than done … too high, too low, too far forward, too far aft, too far right, too far left. As I wandered all around the envelope and I’m sure I was not inspiring much confidence in the boomer. However, I was slowly I was getting that “feel” and was actually starting to settle down into a stable position.
Then to my surprise, the tanker announced he was beginning a 180 degree turn to the left.
Great … stable behind a stable tanker is one thing, stable behind a turning tanker is something else. Luckily for me, the boomer, now more comfortable with my flying skills, decided to plug me before the turn begin. That gave me addition directional lights from underneath the tanker, which are of significant help during night air refueling.
Luck was with me. The tanker pilot provided me with a very stable platform and the night air was very clear and calm. Granted, I was struggling and sweating profusely, but I was hanging in there … and through a turn … and at night … and in a heavyweight C-5!
I did have one disconnect during the turn. I approached the forward limit while underneath the tanker and the boomer became a little concerned (rightly so) and pushed the disconnect button. I backed out and re-entered the envelope without the wanderings of the first contact. When my time was up, I backed the Galaxy out, gave the IP the controls, and hopped out of the seat. I was greeted with hand shakes and pats on the back for a job well done. The general consensus was that I had been on a check ride, I would have passed with flying colors.
The next day, the chief pilot called my back into his office. I knew the decision had been made. I also knew I had done a good job and did not need to attend air refueling school. I entered his office with a big smile and my chest puffed up … just a little.
The Chief Pilot greeted me with a similar smile, shook my hand and said, “Nice job last night.” Then he lingered and added, “… but you will still be attending air refueling school next month. You need the same training all MAC pilots receive.”
My smile vanished, my chest caved in. I saluted smartly and replied, “Yes, sir.”
Then, I went home and packed my bags for Altus AFB and air refueling school.
The C-5 refueling behind a KC-135 from the boomer’s pod.